Here is How California Can Survive This Drought

On April 1st, Governor Jerry Brown of California responded to historic drought conditions by issuing a precedent-setting executive order. With California in its fourth year of drought, the executive order was issued as the state approaches the dry months ahead with a record-low Sierra Nevada snowpack amounting to a startling 5% of the April 1 average.

The executive order gives the State Water Resources Control Board the authority to implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across the Golden State to reduce water usage by 25%. More specifically, it creates strict rules to conserve water use, new rate structures, reporting of water use information and overuse enforcement measures, streamlined water projects, and incentives for water-efficient technologies.

Neither the executive order nor the outlook for water in California turned out to be April Fools’ jokes. The executive order is iconic of what is being recognized as the new normal for water in the state. As a result, the time has come for dramatic change in the way (most) Californians use water.

The restrictions on water use apply to California’s cities rather than the farmlands that consume four times more water but produce about half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Cities and their residents are therefore responsible to act immediately on the drought. They must use a toolkit of generally underutilized existing practices and innovative approaches to simultaneously reduce the demand for water, increase water reuse, and mitigate factors that exacerbate drought—namely, greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to a warmer climate and the resulting reductions in snowpack.

Water conservation is the cheapest, most reliable, and quickest way to stretch the diminishing supplies in California. Households can collectively make a difference by adopting simple water conservation measures at home and at the office. Basic measures include monitoring water meters and monthly bills, avoiding running water, installing efficient fixtures and appliances, taking short showers, using the dishwasher and laundry machine only when full, planting drought-resistant trees and plants with mulch to reduce evaporation, adjusting water sprinkler settings, and only watering in the early morning or later in the evening.

Although these and other conservation measures may be familiar to many, they tend to be perceived as inconvenient or undesirable due to a range of factors—mainly behavioral and cultural—leading to relatively low adoption rates. With the new executive order, however, saving water is no longer voluntary but a legal requirement.

To accelerate adoption of water conservation, city governments should pursue a combination of approaches. They should:

  • Integrate conservation measures into development requirements for new construction, renovations, and retrofits
  • Adopt more rate tiers with prices that better reflect the real-time cost of consuming water
  • Consider mandatory water performance benchmarking
  • Offer a 311 number to report leaks and provide assistance
  • Have giveaways of efficient devices
  • Offer financial incentives to replace lawns with drought-resistant landscaping like a cash-for-grass program, free or discounted lawn makeovers, and competitions for water champions, with an emphasis on transforming landscapes in prestigious neighborhoods and high-visibility institutions.

Water reuse is a strategy that will help Californians better ensure they get the most out of the water that is in supply. City governments should pursue investments in closed-loop water infrastructure as well as engage in complementary educational campaigns and demonstration projects aimed at alleviating social stigma associated with such infrastructure. Moreover, measures like closed-loop water infrastructure that increase the contribution of water reuse as to the overall water supply will provide Californians greater resilience against future drought.

Nevertheless, droughts are expected to become more frequent and expansive in California as the effects of climate change take stronger hold. Although the state has already enacted a noteworthy array of climate change mitigation initiatives, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The continued rise in emissions undercuts the state’s individual efforts and further aggravates the prospects of drought. California should leverage its economic, political, and cultural clout both within the United States and abroad to help unlock the hundreds of billions of dollars in investment needed to attain 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—an imperative according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Meaningful and immediate action is necessary to adequately respond to the present drought situation. Californians could choose to accept the price of inaction—meaning further water shortages, government mandates, government spending (like the $1 billion emergency drought package signed into legislation by Governor Brown last month), and unraveling of a keystone to quality of life—or choose to seize the moment to set an example for synchronized water and climate strategies that can be replicated across the globe. Although the challenge ahead is substantial, history has taught us that Californians are quite familiar with setting the standard for others to follow. It’s time for California to lead the way yet again.


The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily express the views of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

Douglas Miller, US


Douglas Miller applies his background in environmental and behavioral economics at Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) to pioneer the global transformation to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Douglas holds a MSc in Environmental Economics and Policy from Imperial College London and a BA in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) and Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He received the highest academic awards and honors from both universities for his interdisciplinary, empirical research on environmental and climate action strategies. Before joining RMI, Douglas served in roles at Chatham House, Wharton Risk Center, Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership, Oxford University, Carbon Smart, and the Mayor of Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability.

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